Bartenders love nothing more than to show off their arcane knowledge of spirits and cocktails, in a dual role as educators and inebriators. Mezcal offers just such a chance. Like tequila it is made from agave, but is smokier, richer and sweeter. Unlike tequila, it is not industrially produced by giant firms like Diageo and Beam Suntory, but is made by smaller companies with their own style and terroir. That has made it appealing to the growing number of drinkers looking for local authenticity. Ever since Death & Co, a speakeasy in New York, introduced their Oaxacan Old Fashioned, mezcal has been appearing in more and more bars around the world, giving bartenders the chance to wax lyrical about the relative virtues of espadin and tobala, two varieties of agave, and the subtleties of this or that bottle.
Mezcal’s rise has been driven by a feeling that we may have reached peak tequila. In 1758, Jose María Guadalupe de Cuervo was granted the first royal permit to produce tequila commercially. Until recently, it was made and consumed primarily by Mexicans in Mexico. That all started to change in 1989 when John Paul DeJoria, an American shampoo magnate, decided to buy the Patrón tequila brand from one of Mexico’s oldest distilleries and reposition it as a premium product for export to the United States. That gamble launched today’s tequila industry, which produces 260m litres of the stuff each year and is worth $9bn.
But as tequila became bigger, its connection with its roots changed. Traditionally the blue agave it’s made from could only be grown in the state of Jalisco. But as the industry expanded so did the territory. Aging times were shortened to get the product to market faster, and the producers were no longer Jaliscan hacendados but multinational corporations. Today, most people think of tequila as a bland shot to be downed in the small hours rather than as a drink with subtleties to savour.
That has created an opportunity for mezcal makers to appeal to drinkers who like to know where their booze comes from and who made it. Mezcal is to tequila what Scotch is to blended whisky: while tequila found an audience by going global, mezcal found its niche by holding on to its roots, emphasising the lone mezcalero with his coa or hoe, toiling on his dusty farm. This sense of terroir is as vital to the taste of mezcal as it is to fine wine.
The mezcal purist will insist that their drink be produced on a mountainside with the agave piñas (hearts) roasted in a wood-fired, earthen pit before being crushed under a tahona stone, fermented in a wooden tank with agave fibers intact, and distilled in wood-fired clay pots. Although mezcal tends to be smokey, it isn’t always: differences in geography, agave, clay and wood can add notes of caramel, butterscotch and chocolate. And while mezcal is produced officially in nine Mexican states, other regions claim traditional variations.
Although mezcal can be made from a dizzying number of agaves – there are 150 species – very few of those yield high amounts of fermentable sugar. Espadin delivers the most, which is why it’s the most popular variety and the one you’re most likely to come across in your neighbourhood bar. If you order a mezcal made from tobala, which yields far less and is only found at high altitudes, you can expect to pay more. Another limiting factor is maturation. Agave plants take a long time to ripen, from four to 25 years – which is why espadin, which matures relatively quickly, is attractive.
Agave shortages in recent years – due to weevils, bad weather and disease – have devastated small producers and led to reports that tequila companies in Jalisco have raided the espadin fields to the south in Oaxaca to meet their contractual obligations. Mezcaleros fear that, as the drink becomes more popular, big companies will saturate the market with a cheaper product stripped of the character that small-scale manufacturers work so hard to preserve. But entrepreneurs like Mike Whipple from NETA, a mezcal brand, are determined to protect it. “We spent years getting to know and gaining the trust of our mezcaleros and their families,” he says, “many of whom have been overtly exploited. We were for real about caring for and protecting their culture, respecting sustainability, and making sure they got paid.” The more Big Tequila tries to drown smaller mezcal producers, the more thoughtful people will cherish and fight for them.